Black Elk Speaks

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Black Elk Speaks
Black Elk Speaks.jpg
Author John G. Neihardt
Country United States
Language English
Publication date
1932 (original cover)
Media type Print

Black Elk Speaks is a 1932 book by John G. Neihardt, an American poet and writer, who relates the story and spirituality of Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota medicine man. It was based on conversations by Black Elk with the author and translated from Lakota into English by Black Elk's son, Ben Black Elk, who was present during the talks.[1] Neihardt transformed his notes to convey Black Elk's spiritual message in a powerful, lyrical English.[2]

The prominent psychologist Carl Jung read the book in the 1930s and urged its translation into German; in 1953, it was published as Ich Rufe mein Volk (I Call My People).[2] Reprinted in the US in 1961 and four later editions, the book has been widely read as part of a deepening appreciation within the United States for Native American voices, spirituality and issues. In 2008 the State University of New York Press published a premier edition with annotations by the Lakota scholar Raymond DeMallie.


In the summer of 1930, as part of his research into the Native American perspective on the Ghost Dance movement, the poet and writer John Neihardt, already the Nebraska Poet Laureate, received permission from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to go to the Pine Ridge Reservation with his two daughters to meet an Oglala holy man and shaman named Black Elk.[3] At age 13, Black Elk had been part of the Battle of the Little Big Horn and he survived the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre.

As Neihardt recounts, Black Elk gave him the gift of his life's narrative. He told of his visions, including one in which he saw himself as a "sixth grandfather", the spiritual representative of the earth and of mankind. Black Elk also shared some of the Oglala rituals which he had performed as a healer. The two men developed a close friendship, and Black Elk adopted Neihardt and his two daughters, giving each of them Lakota names.[3] Neihardt developed the book Black Elk Speaks from their conversations, which continued through the spring of 1931. It has become Neihardt's most well-known work.

Publication data[edit]

  • Black Elk Speaks, 1932, William Morrow & Company; 1961 University of Nebraska Press edition with new preface by Neihardt; 1979 edition with introduction by Vine Deloria, Jr.; 1988 edition: Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, as told through John G. Neihardt (Flaming Rainbow), ISBN 0-8032-8359-8; 2000 edition with index: ISBN 0-8032-6170-5.
  • Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, The Premier Edition, 2008, SUNY Press, Albany, NY, ISBN 978-1-4384-2540-5, with annotations by Raymond DeMallie, author of The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk's Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt (1985). The premier edition by the State University of New York Press, under its Excelsior Editions, is the first ever annotated edition. It includes reproductions of the original illustrations by Standing Bear, with new commentary; new maps of the world of Black Elk Speaks; and a revised index.[4]

Academic controversy[edit]

Because the book credits John Neihardt as the author and not just the editor, scholars and Native Americans have debated the accuracy of the account, which has elements of a collaborative autobiography, spiritual text and other genres. The Indiana University professor Raymond DeMallie, who has studied the Lakota by cultural and linguistic resources, published a book in 1985 including the original transcripts of the conversations with Black Elk, plus his own introduction, analysis and notes. He has questioned whether Neihardt's account is accurate and fully represents the view of Black Elk.[5]

As noted, in the course of producing the book, Black Elk spoke to his son, who translated the story into English for John Neihardt, who with his daughter Enid made notes on the talk. Neihardt used their notes as the basis for his account. The primary criticism made by DeMallie and similar scholars is that Neihardt, as the author and editor, may have exaggerated or altered some parts of the story to make it more accessible and marketable to the intended white audience of the 1930s, or because he did not fully understand the Lakota context.[6] Late twentieth-century editions of the book by Nebraska University Press have attributed it as Black Elk Speaks, as told through John G. Neihardt (Flaming Rainbow). This was the English meaning of the Lakota name which Black Elk gave him, based on one of his visions.

Ben Black Elk and the second life of the oral legacy[edit]

In 1931, Ben Black Elk translated his father's words for John Neihardt. Afterward and, increasingly after his father's death in 1950, Ben Black Elk visited local schools on the Pine Ridge Reservation to tell the traditional stories of the Lakota history and culture. Warfield Moose, Sr., a Lakota educator, recorded some of these sessions. In 1996 he entrusted the tapes of Ben Black Elk to his son, Warfield Moose, Jr.[7]

Warfield Moose, Jr. made a CD of the recordings, released in 2003 as Ben Black Elk Speaks''.[7] It won the award for "Best Historical Recording" at the 2003 Native American Music Awards.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kaye, Frances W. "Interpreting the Legacy: John Neihardt and Black Elk Speaks (review)", Studies in American Indian Literatures – Volume 17, Number 1, Spring 2005, pp. 98–101
  2. ^ a b George Linden, "John Neihardt and 'Black Elk Speaks'", in The Black Elk Reader, ed. Clyde Holler, Syracuse University Press, 2000, accessed 20 June 2011
  3. ^ a b Hilda Neihardt and R. Todd Wise, "Black Elk and John G. Neihardt", The Black Elk Reader, 2000
  4. ^ Black Elk Speaks, SUNY Press Premier Edition
  5. ^ Raymond DeMallie (1985). The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk's Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt, Introduction and notes throughout the book, Nebraska University Press. ISBN# 0803265646
  6. ^ Carl Silvio, Internet Public Library, academic arguments on authorship, translation, and interpretation for prospective audiences have been written by Carl Silvio, among others. Note: This site has been superseded since 2010 by, a consortium of universities, accessed 19 June 2011
  7. ^ a b Review: Ben Black Elks Speaks CD, Voice of America News, 13 July 2003
  8. ^ "2003 Native American Music Award Nominations and Wins", Native Village Website

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]